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Gender Roles and Sexual Politics in Hollywood Action Movie Cycles of the 1980s and 1990s

by Joseph Oldham, Department of Film and Television Studies, University of Warwick[1]



The starting point of this investigation is the question of how John McClane rescues his wife Holly in Die Hard. It begins with a discussion of each character’s role within the plot (and also how these are reinterpreted by the sequels), in particular considering the criticisms of sexism made by Maurice Yacowar. It then moves to discussing the accusations of patriarchal bias levelled at the wider ‘Reaganite’ cinema by Andrew Britton and Robin Wood, with examples from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones cycles. Subsequently, Richard Dyer’s theories on the positioning of white women and non-white men in relation to the white male hero are considered, with a comparison between Die Hard and his own example, Speed. Then the implications of films like Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which position women as lead characters in action narratives, are discussed and compared with an attempt to introduce a similar character in Die Hard 4.0. Finally, McClane’s relationships with two strands of masculinity identified by Laura Mulvey in the Western genre, one of integration and one of resistance to marriage, are considered.

KEYWORDS: Action, Cinema, Die Hard, Gender, Hollywood, Reaganite.



When Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) begins, John McClane (Bruce Willis) has become estranged from his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who has left him to travel to Los Angeles and pursue a successful business career. His subsequent rescue of her from a group of terrorists in the Nakatomi Tower perhaps appears obvious on his part as a gesture towards reclaiming his wife. Yet, the exact reasoning behind her departure with him at the film’s conclusion is ambiguous, posing complicated questions concerning the gender roles of each character and sexual politics within the genre of the action movie. These issues will be considered in relation to the conservative family values promoted in American society during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and its aftermath, values which McClane appears to conform to in his role as a masculine patriarch yet resists with his inability to fit the role of family man. In addition, the film will be compared to later entries in the Die Hard series, as well as other Hollywood action movie cycles of the 1980s and 1990s, in order to explore the contradictory values of American cinematic entertainment during this period.



Early in Die Hard, the nature of Holly’s loyalty to her husband is in doubt. She no longer uses his name. She appears to want him to stay with the family for Christmas, yet has Paulina (Betty Carvalho) make up the spare bedroom for him indicating there is no longer intimacy between them. Unsure over whether he will even appear, she angrily slams down a family photograph showing McClane as the patriarchal head of the family, towering over everyone else. Indeed, Holly seems to have largely supplanted such a role, presumably bringing in a large income in her corporate role, thereby acting as breadwinner. She is even seen to be at her workplace on Christmas Eve, delegating conventionally feminine domestic and childcare responsibilities to the maid Paulina.

Ultimately, she has won something of a victory over her husband, surviving on her own for sixth months when, it is heavily implied, he had originally thought that she would give up her career aspirations in California and return to him in New York. But as he arrives at the Nakatomi Building, McClane’s response to the driver Argyle’s declaration of ‘Your lady sees you, you run into each other’s arms, the music come up and you live happily ever after’ is one of apparent doubt. As it happens, Holly’s first meeting with McClane in the film is strangely muted, consisting of a hesitant, chaste embrace, showing their displaced emotions. Maurice Yacowar considers that the film ‘condemns her for abandoning her husband. The implication is that she is wrong to stand by an additional man, as she serves her boss’ (Yacowar, 1989: 3). When McClane looks at the same family photograph kept in his wallet later, his only reaction is to smile fondly, suggesting his role, no matter how redundant it might appear, is less complicated. His warmer reaction upon the sight of his family perhaps suggests that he is more qualified to be the head of that family.

That McClane’s roles in both the family and Holly’s affections have been supplanted is evidenced by his discomfort in Holly’s new world. He has never ridden in a limousine before, resisting the luxury offered and instead sitting up front with Argyle. When he walks into the Nakatomi Building reception, he appears as a small figure dwarfed by the elegant scenery. His struggle to find Holly’s name in the computerised staff list reflects how she as been consumed by a world unfamiliar to him. As he arrives at the party he is made to appear a loner, both by his informal dress (checked shirt) amidst the formal gathering and through the camera largely focusing on him, keeping the more comfortable, socialising crowds in the background.

However, once he is alone with Holly in the bathroom, McClane’s image changes dramatically. An early shot depicts him in the foreground, clad only in a vest, revealing his powerful, muscular form. A sense of dominance is suddenly evident as he towers over everything else in the frame, including the lush office surroundings and his own wife, and his body language appears more relaxed and comfortable. This continues as he confronts her about the use of her maiden name, with shots of Holly taken from behind the back of the towering McClane and him rudely interrupting her attempts to explain. McClane berates her for not considering the consequences it would have for their marriage. She retorts that ‘it didn’t do anything to our marriage except maybe change your idea of what our marriage should be’. Both characters acknowledge that McClane has a certain idea of what their marriage should be like, and this is clearly something Holly no longer feels she needs to be limited by, as evidenced by her venomous retort, ‘I know exactly what your idea of our marriage should be.’ McClane even casts himself in the role of patriarchal breadwinner, alleging that Holly only misses his name when she’s signing cheques, suggesting a financial dependence upon him which seems highly unlikely considering her senior role within the company. Yet, it is Holly who wins a temporary victory in the scene, being called upon to give her speech at the party, favouring professional over the personal and summing up their crisis in microcosm. The scene ends with McClane back in the physically powerful position, but now appearing somewhat impotent having lost a woman to impose himself upon and sarcastically admonishing himself over acting ‘very mature’. McClane therefore acknowledges a need to adapt to Holly’s new lifestyle. However, it is this vested, muscular look that McClane adapts as he observes the terrorist takeover, flees and prepares to take them on. His muscular appearance gives him a sense of power suddenly missing from the formally attired businessmen who are now held hostage.

It is thus the disintegration of Holly’s world which allows McClane to flourish and become his truly proactive and impressive self. Yvonne Tasker notes that films like Die Hard often include a woman character, ‘a figure who seems to be necessary even if she has little to say or do […] If we are seeing the performance of masculinity in these films, the action cinema for the most part prefers all-male environments as the stage for such a performance’ (Tasker, 1993a: 236). Die Hard artificially creates this environment by transforming its civilised office environment into a battleground, replacing the mixed-gender workforce with an all-male conflict between a cop and some terrorists.

Holly must therefore be removed from the narrative for McClane to work through his anxieties. In the first film, she is held hostage by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), in the second kept trapped in an endangered aeroplane, in the third and fourth absent altogether. In the first two films she remains necessary by virtue of being the figure McClane is trying to rescue, therefore embodying his personal stake in events and giving him a reason to go on fighting. As Tasker notes, the moment of reunion is constantly postponed until the end of the film, the task of rescuing her apparently of more interest than the demonstrable happiness of their relationship (Tasker, 1993a: 236). Another role of Holly’s is to act as a verbal vote of confidence for McClane, defending his actions to a critical Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner) by noting that he is only doing ‘his job’ and thereby acknowledging his authority in such a situation. When she observes Karl (Alexander Godunov) smashing furniture in rage at McClane’s actions, she remarks wistfully ‘only McClane can drive somebody that crazy’. Thus, the very aspect of his personality causing friction in their relationship is what she comes to appreciate about him under such intense circumstances.

Yacowar is critical of Die Hard’s sexual politics, writing that beyond the wit and action ‘it has a deeper appeal in its political assumptions, which speak to the sexist who craves to have his obsolete delusions reaffirmed’ (Yacowar, 1989: 4). Describing the narrative, he argues that ‘McClane’s adventure provides him with the opportunity to correct his wife. He demonstrates that she cannot survive without him; she needs him to look after her’ (ibid). A key scene which appears to demonstrate this point comes at the end of the film as McClane introduces his wife by her maiden name of Gennero, finally accepting her preference, only for her to correct him by reintroducing herself as Holly McClane. Thus, she is seen to ultimately accept some kind of role as his wife, although it remains ambiguous as to what form this will take in day-to-day life and how she intends to juggle it with her apparently contradictory career. Whilst they appear completely reconciled in Die Hard 2 (Renny Harlin, 1990), by the time of Die Hard with a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995) personality clashes have again caused damage to their relationship and by Die Hard 4.0 (Len Wiseman, 2007) they are unambiguously divorced. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that, whilst under the impression that he will never see Holly again, McClane asks Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson) to apologise to her on his behalf, acknowledging that he has been a ‘jerk’ and that he should have supported her more. An interpretation that the film is solely about correcting her is apparently not supported by the lead character himself.

Yacowar criticises the scene in which Holly punches the TV reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton), an action he observes as being stereotypically ‘within the traditional role of woman’ (Yacowar, 1989: 4). This is one of Holly’s only truly proactive gestures in the film, apparently suggesting that she has adopted a more violent, impulsive attitude to life in response to McClane’s victory, but this is only a comical moment, her violence safely contained within the final scene after the true villains have been vanquished. This act of aggression is developed into a subplot in Die Hard 2 in which she is trapped on board a plane with Thornburg. This time Holly gets to stun him with a taser in retaliation to his broadcasting information about the terrorist threat and causing a mass panic. Ultimately, as her gesture towards victory, this is again only a comical diversion and has little real impact upon the main narrative of the film. As before, she is not permitted to be a hero in the same manner as McClane; her function as a victim that McClane must save is more important than her actual actions.

In terms of a close relationship with McClane, Holly is arguably supplanted by Al, whose praise and encouragement of McClane over the radio establishes a close, male-bonding relationship. At the film’s conclusion, McClane’s first encounter with Al is dramatically directed with shots of each character from the other’s perspective, a dramatic medium shot of their face-to-face meeting, culminating in a triumphant embrace, underscored by highly emotive music. Indeed, this meeting is apparently of more interest to the film than his reconciliation with Holly which is comparatively brief. Ultimately, this emphasis on the male buddy turns out to be the trajectory of the film series. By Die Hard with a Vengeance, the narrative is now so disinterested in the marriage strand that it (and Holly) are kept off-screen. This time another buddy relationship, this time with shopkeeper Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), completely supplants the marriage as the core of the film’s character development. At this point in the series, the audience accepts McClane’s role as lone champion against terrorism, so that he can credibly throw himself into outrageously heroic feats without the need for a particular endangered character to ‘explain’ his personal involvement. Holly is thus dropped as her role in the increasingly simplistic narratives becomes irrelevant. In Die Hard 4.0 McClane, now accompanied by another male buddy in the form of benevolent computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long), acknowledges he is now fighting the fight largely for its own sake, having lost the love of his wife and children and hence the promise of reward: ‘You know what you get for being a hero? Nothing. You get shot at. A pat on the back, blah blah blah.’

Tasker notes that in action movies the family itself ‘is generally avoided, only rarely occupying much screen time’ (Tasker, 1993a: 236). This is also true of Die Hard, the family a little-glimpsed aspect of the world McClane is trying to regain through his actions but not something the film takes inherent satisfaction in. She adds that in such movies, ‘the position of the father, a position of authority, lacks credibility in various ways. This lack of credibility is part of a denaturalization of masculinity and its relation to power’ (ibid). McClane’s role as a father is not specifically called into question until Die Hard 4.0. At the start of this film, McClane is feuding with the (now-teenage) Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He is heavy-handed in his fatherly role, coming after and hassling her whilst she is on a date, whilst she in turn resents his interference, calling him an ‘asshole’ and asserting her independence by using her mother’s maiden name, Gennero, in a throwback to the first film. As with Holly in the first film, her ultimate role is that of ‘damsel in distress’, kidnapped by the villain Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) in retaliation for McClane’s interference in his plans and in turn giving McClane a personal stake in preventing the terrorist attack. Much like Holly’s tokenistic violence against Thornburg, Lucy is prone to isolated but ineffectual moments of bravado, showing impotent defiance of the terrorists and telling Matt to ‘dig deep for a bigger set of balls’. She also fulfils Holly’s earlier role as McClane’s verbal vote of confidence in the intense situation, gloating on his behalf when he scores victories against Gabriel. And as before, McClane’s estranged family-member signifies her realigned loyalty to him during the course of events by adopting his surname.

With regards to the historical background of white, male hero characters such as McClane, Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner argue that ‘the revival of the hero in the Hollywood film’ of the late 1970s/early 1980s played an important part in ‘the cultural terrain that led to the rise of conservatism’ (Ryan and Kellner, 1988: 219). These heroes emerge to satisfy a ‘ yearning’ in American society for the ‘redemptive leadership’ of a conservative individualist model, in response to the failures of Jimmy Carter’s Democrat administration (ibid). As Ryan and Kellner put it:

What is particularly noteworthy about these heroes […] is that they often respond directly to the economic, political, sexual, and military issues that were the motivating sources of that psychological need […] The new hero is usually an individualist who combines three essential components of the contemporary conservative social agenda; he is a warrior, an entrepreneur, and a patriarch. (Ryan and Kellner, 1988: 219)

Their argument is not simply that such heroes reflected the rise of the conservative agenda in American society, but that they actively promoted it and aided its triumph. McClane might therefore be seen as something of an embodiment of American society values at the end of the Reagan presidency and the time of the character’s origin.

Susan Jeffords writes that ‘as part of a widespread cultural effort to respond to perceived deteriorations in masculine forms of power, Hollywood films of the 1980s […] highlighted masculinity […] as a violent spectacle that insisted on the external sufficiency of the male body/territory’ (Jeffords, 1993: 246). However, it is worth noting that Die Hard comes at the time of a change in the nature of such figures. Jeffords notes a new kind of male action hero emerging from Hollywood in the 1990s: ‘What Hollywood culture is offering, in place of the bold spectacle of male muscularity and/as violence, is a self-effacing man, one who now, instead of learning to fight, learns to love’ (ibid). Die Hard might be seen as representing the transition between the two models, McClane representing both a self-sufficient, violent and masculine hero, whilst showing a more modern tendency towards self-effacement and ultimately seeking a goal of reconciliation with his wife. Yet, in eliminating Holly, the sequels perhaps demonstrate a greater commitment towards the old-fashioned muscularity and violence aspects of the character. Publicity for Die Hard 4.0 describes how McClane ‘delivers old-school justice to a new breed of terrorists’, seemingly indicating that the audience’s main nostalgia is for these characteristics, and casting into doubt just how integral the narrative strand of McClane’s reconciliation with Holly was in the first place.



In his article ‘Blissing Out’, Andrew Britton criticises ‘a general movement of reaction and conservative reassurance in the contemporary Hollywood cinema’ leading up to and culminating in the Reagan presidency (Britton, 1986: 2). He writes that ‘the utopianism of the new radical right’ looks back ‘to a vanished golden age in which the nation was great and the patriarchal family flourished in happy ignorance of the scourges of abortion and a soaring divorce rate, gay rights and the women’s movement’ (ibid: 9). It is interesting to consider Die Hard in this light, as contemporary corporate culture (in the form of the Nakatomi Corporation) can be seen as the cause of the McClane family’s disruption. Whilst the audience is clearly not meant to approve of the terrorists’ attack on the Nakatomi Building, the happy ending offered not only reconciles the traditional family but does so amidst the wreckage of Holly’s professional career. Thus, the purging of such modern scourges (the independence of the woman amongst them) seems necessary in the promise of a return to the ‘golden age’ of the family. However, the sequels reveal that this is not a permanent state of affairs, perhaps more honestly acknowledging the impossibility of such a fantasy.

Britton accuses the vast majority of such ‘Reaganite’ cinematic entertainment of being ‘an unabashed apology for patriarchy’ (Britton, 1986: 24). Turning his criticism towards the more family-orientated action movies often produced by directors such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he writes that:

While […] Spielberg’s films are ostensibly committed to the renewal of patriarchal domesticity, they are surreptitiously motivated by a desire to escape it. Since “ settlement” and “femininity” go together in American texts, the contradiction expresses itself, where women are concerned, in a covert, diluted and inexplicit misogyny. At one level of meaning, the role of wife-and-mother is the ideal role: at the other it defines the “female world” which threatens the male American protagonist with emasculation. (ibid: 40).

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984) comes under particular fire from Britton for its sexism:

The film’s subject […] is the formation of a misogynistic homoerotic bond between father and son, consummated through imitative violence and the systematic degradation of the heroine […] In no other film of the period is one woman called on to be both the “love-interest” (by virtue of the conventions of heterosexist narrative) and the focus of intense anti-feminist animus. (Britton, 1986: 41-42)

The woman in question is Wilhelmina ‘ Willie’ Scott (Kate Capshaw), a Shanghai nightclub singer, who is accidentally swept into a dangerous adventure in India. The film delights in her naivety and incompetence compared to her fellow travellers, experienced adventurers Jones and Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), and seeks to humiliate her at every turn for comic effect. Britton notes the contradictory nature of the final ‘heterosexual embrace to which the film is inertly committed by the presence of the woman whom, at the same time, it passionately loathes’ (Britton, 1986: 42). In this case, Jones’ involvement with Willie is so automatic that the film does not lift a finger to set it up as a credible partnership, in contrast with McClane’s pursuit of Holly throughout Die Hard, and this simplicity is accomplished by denying the woman an independent identity in any sphere, domestic, professional or romantic.

Ryan and Kellner write that ‘it was clear by the mid-eighties that feminism had succeeded in transforming American life’ despite having ‘faltered somewhat in the early eighties in the face of conservative counterattacks’ (Ryan and Kellner, 1988: 136). Feminism ‘had shifted the parameters of public discussion, obliged conservatives to accept as givens certain rights and principles which had hitherto been denied or rejected, and established a strong presence in American public and intellectual life which had to be contended with’ (ibid). Yet, in the male-dominated film industry, ‘avoidance and denial were the first responses to feminism’ (ibid). Films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom might therefore be seen as part of an increasingly irrelevant conservative backlash against feminism.

Robin Wood writes that in such films ‘women are allowed minor feats of heroism and aggression’ (Wood, 1986: 173) such as Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) punching Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), but ‘subsequently the woman’s main function is to be rescued by the man, involving her reduction to helplessness and dependency’ (Wood, 1986: 174). Wood also notes the keen interest the original Star Wars trilogy takes in father figures both good, like Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), and bad, like Darth Vader (David Prowse), although Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) mother ‘is so superfluous that she doesn’t figure in the narrative at all’ (Wood, 1986: 174). The subsequent revelation of the mother in prequel films such as Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005) does little to counter this, casting Padmé (Natalie Portman) largely as a passive victim in the tale of Anakin Skywalker’s (Hayden Christensen) descent to the Dark Side. Similarly, Wood dismisses the revelation that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is Luke’s sister to be ‘largely a matter of narrative convenience’, noting that ‘ there is never any suggestion that she might inherit the Force, or have the privilege of being trained and instructed by Obi One [sic] and Yoda’ (Wood, 1986: 174). This reading is not entirely accurate though as, whilst the opening instalment Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) centres on the trope of Leia as a ‘damsel in distress’ requiring rescue from the Death Star by the male characters, the sequel The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) does much to counter this, showing Leia independently leading a successful escape from Cloud City and subsequently rescuing Luke from mortal danger.

Of course, by the 1990s, another, arguably more liberal, administration was in office. How then is it possible to account for a continuing conservative attitude towards families and gender roles in Hollywood films such as the Die Hard sequels? Chris Jordan argues that ‘the themes of the Reagan presidency shaped subsequent presidential administrations’ due to the continued popularity of the agendas of promoting family values and downsizing government, with even the more liberal Bill Clinton compelled to pay such ideas lip service (Jordan, 2003: 147-148). It was therefore logical that ‘ Reagan-era themes continued to dominate the movie landscape after the president’s departure from office in 1989 because they appealed to a culture of economic and moral conservatism’ (ibid: 147). Meanwhile, he notes that in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, other concerns were to seize the attention of the American public, writing that ‘cautionary tales about the threats to the American family posed by divorce, single-parent families, and two-income households with latchkey kids rivalled concerns about international threats to American well-being’ (ibid: 147-148). Thus, it can be seen that domestic issues were placed under perhaps even greater scrutiny in the post-Reagan era, due to the reduced international threat to American society.



Yet, whilst action films like the Die Hard sequels cling to Reagan-era conservatism, others display a change in attitudes. Writing on the subject of the contemporary action movie, Richard Dyer notes that:

We now have a well-established pattern, whereby the hero is accompanied by white women and men of colour […] who are also exposed to the dangers that bring the thrills […]. Women and men of colour are nowadays more likely to be allowed to be tough and brave, to be able to handle themselves and often to have skills the white hero doesn’t possess. (Dyer, 2002: 66)

In the case of the Die Hard cycle, this role is indeed reserved for black men like Al in the original film and Zeus in Die Hard with a Vengeance, although in Die Hard 4.0 the sidekick Matt is a white male. Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994) is an example of a similar film in which the figure of the ‘ white helper’ is a woman, in the form of Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock). Annie is an ordinary passenger on the bus threatened by bomber Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), who becomes an invaluable ally of Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves), holding the wheel of the bus whilst he performs the stunts necessary to save it. Dyer writes that Annie ‘does get the thrills of extreme physical danger and the exultation of mastery of a machine. Yet Speed still conforms to the pattern of contemporary action films by constituting her as helper’ (Dyer, 2002: 66). However, her journey is entirely unlike that of Holly, the film implicitly delighting in her liberation from a dull life, when the police prosecuted her for speeding in her car, to a series of high-octane adventures alongside Jack. Whilst Die Hard positions its terrorist threat as the nominal obstacle McClane must overcome in order to achieve reunion with Holly, in Speed the action and adventure is the basis of the relationship, Jack acknowledging this with the wry remark ‘I've heard relationships based on intense experiences never work’.

Dyer acknowledges the bias, writing that ‘extreme sensation is represented […] in the body’s contact with the world, its rush, its expansiveness, its physical stress and challenge, and this is seen as essentially male’ (Dyer, 2002: 66). The movies tie ‘such feelings of extreme and, as it were, worldly sensation’ to ‘male characters and male environments, suggesting it is really only appropriate to men’ (ibid). As to why this should be the case, he proposes that ‘the notions of active and passive have been made to do a great deal of muddled but suggestive work […] Proper gender identity has seemed to be realized in the performance of active male and passive female coital roles’ (ibid: 68). This is certainly true of the first two Die Hard movies, with Holly kept in positions where she is helpless and hence passive, McClane carrying out all of the proactive work to save the situation. In Speed, this is slightly more ambiguous, as Annie is in control for significant moments of action such as the bus’ jump over the gap in the highway bridge, yet it is still Jack who holds authority, gives her encouragement and simultaneously engages in a greater variety of stunts.



Yet, despite this overall genre bias, there are several relevant action films which position a white female as the lead character, two notable examples being Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991) with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). On the role of women in Hollywood action narratives, Steve Neale argues that they are ‘a problem, a source of anxiety, of obsessive enquiry [whilst] men are not. Where women are investigated, men are tested. Masculinity […] is implicitly known. Femininity is, by contrast, a mystery’ (Neale, 1993: 19). However, this theory seems not to apply to these films, as the experiences these women go through can be accurately described in terms of being tests and they can be considered as known figures to the audience rather than mysteries. Thus, they perhaps better resemble Hollywood men as described by Neale than women. Indeed, Tasker observes that some criticism has written the action heroine off as simply being ‘really a man’ (Tasker, 1993b: 132).

However, even if the female body is simply being used as a disguise for a conventionally masculine kind of hero, the romantic angle of the genre is essentially absent for Ripley in Aliens (1986), with the action narrative neither facilitating coupling as in Speed nor providing an obstacle to it as in Die Hard. Indeed, in this light it is interesting that the character of Ripley (like the rest of the characters in the original Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)) was originally written as a unisex part, and at an early stage a male actor was considered for the role (McIntee, 2005: 22). On the one hand, it could be argued that the sexual neutrality of the character has simply stuck for the sequel. However, an argument could perhaps be made that, whilst audiences can accept the reinvention of the woman as active in action movies, the equivalent reinventing of men as passive victims requiring the woman to be tested and prove herself a suitable romantic partner for them is still held to lack credibility for the reasons offered by Dyer, thus Ripley’s male equivalent of Holly is simply absent.

Also notable is that each woman requires an earlier film in the cycle (Alien and The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) respectively) to depict her transition from a civilian into a soldier, whereas it is generally taken for granted that male heroes such as McClane are ready for action right from the start. In fact, Sarah is groomed for her role by Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a white male hero, and is subsequently positioned as the mother and mentor of John Connor (Edward Furlong), a future white male hero, thus it is possible to consider her role as something of an aberrational link. Meanwhile, whilst Sarah is allowed a brief romantic involvement with Reese, this is not offered as a potential resolution due to his death in the first film, and by the second instalment her personal stake in events, like that of McClane in Die Hard 4.0, is that of a protective parent. Thus, it can be seen that such action heroines draw upon many of the narrative conventions that construct male heroes like McClane, yet the equivalent acquisition of a helpless male as love interest remains untouched, perhaps reflecting greater inflexibility concerning the roles of men than women.

As it happens, Die Hard 4.0 gives us perhaps the first truly active woman in the series in the form of Mai Linh (Maggie Q), who is a significant challenge even for McClane to fight thanks to her modern martial arts techniques. McClane nonetheless asserts his masculine authority, cutting her down to size with more traditional brute strength and the remark, ‘ That’s enough of this kung-fu shit. I didn’t do bitches in my day, but you…’ That she is a villain seems to reflect the series’ resistance to such figures, and that she is seen as a modern aberration by McClane (whose old-fashioned values are championed by the film) is perhaps a realignment of the original Die Hard’s status quo as the ‘golden age’ that Britton considers the Reaganite cinema as nostalgic for; Holly may not have respected McClane’s patriarchal authority in the home, but at least she had the decency to stay out of his conventionally masculine battles with terrorists. Linh’s bid for equality with McClane only gets her verbally condemned then removed from the narrative long before his climactic confrontation with the principal (male) villain.



Analysing the Western genre using a narrative model from Vladimir Propp’s analyses of folktales, Laura Mulvey notes that two diverging images of masculinity emerge, ‘one celebrating integration into society through marriage, and the other celebrating resistance to social standards and responsibilities, above all those of marriage and the family, the sphere represented by women’ (Mulvey, 1981: 18). McClane seems caught between these tropes, the first three films teasing the audience with the possibility of such integration whilst undermining the notional happy endings by retaining the complexity of the relationship for the next instalment. Die Hard 4.0 finally acknowledges the impossibility of McClane’s integration, yet even then any ‘resistance’ offered by McClane is apparently reluctant, as the failure of his marriage is clearly something he regrets.

Mulvey also notes that according to this model ‘the rejection of marriage personifies a nostalgic celebration of phallic, narcissistic omnipotence’ (Mulvey, 1981: 14). If Die Hard 4.0 is indeed responding to audience nostalgia for an uncomplicatedly violent and masculine McClane, perhaps his failure to become part of ‘the sphere represented by women’ is similarly something the audience is meant to relish, even as the character himself argues otherwise’ (ibid: 18). Earlier films invited the audience to admire McClane as a loner in his clashes against the police and FBI, so it is perhaps the logical extension to ultimately render his love life in much the same way. Holly’s ultimate role seems largely gestural, embodying and demonstrating the Reaganite conception of family and women’s roles despite her initial attitudes to the contrary. In winning her back, McClane demonstrates his allegiance to such an ideology, yet ultimately the persona he adopts to do so is either too masculine or too ironic to be contained by the Reaganite family archetype. However, this appears not to be a problem for his audience; many examples illustrate that the thrills of the action movie can comfortably exist for male and female heroes without the promise of ultimate integration. McClane is, as Holly says, just doing his job.



I would like to thank Professor Stella Bruzzi of the University of Warwick for her help and encouragement with the conception and writing of this paper as a third-year undergraduate essay.



[1] Joseph Oldham studied Film with Television Studies at the University of Warwick and shall be commencing an MA for Research in Film and Television Studies at the same department in October 2009.




Alien, Ridley Scott, Brandywine Productions (1979)

Aliens, James Cameron, 20thCentury Fox (1986)

Die Hard, John McTiernan, Gordon Company (1988)

Die Hard 2, Renny Harlin, Gordon Company (1990)

Die Hard 4.0, Len Wiseman, Cheyenne Enterprises (2007)

Die Hard with a Vengeance, John McTiernan, Cinergi Pictures Entertainment (1995)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg, Lucasfilm (1984)

Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg, Lucasfilm (1981)

Speed, Jan de Bont, 20thCentury Fox (1994)

Star Wars, George Lucas, Lucasfilm (1977)

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas, Lucasfilm (2005)

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner, Lucasfilm (1980)

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Richard Marquand, Lucasfilm (1983)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day, James Cameron, Canal+ (1991)

The Terminator, James Cameron, Hemdale Film (1984)


Written Sources

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Cohan, S. and I. R. Hark (eds.) (1993), Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, London: Routledge

Dyer, R. (2002), Only Entertainment, London: Routledge

Jeffords, S. (1993), ‘Can Masculinity be Terminated?’t in Cohan, S. and I. R. Hark (eds.), Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, London: Routledge, pp. 245-262

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To cite this paper please use the following details: Oldham, J. (2009), ‘Gender Roles and Sexual Politics in Hollywood Action Movie Cycles of the 1980s and 1990s', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 2, Issue 1, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.

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